Finding the Rural Girls: Sources and Possibilities
Iowa State University
Historical childhood – or at least the historical sources that inform it – seem to be a point of intimidation for researchers. Time and again, while writing on rural childhood, people questioned my ability to find sources adequate to the task. Where would I possibly find the materials to complete the project?
Letters and diaries are an important source, and there are more than you would think. One of the chief lessons I learned in the course of using farm girls’ diaries in my research was that one should never take for granted what a cataloger had to say about the writer of a particular journal. One of the very best diaries I used in my work had originally been identified as written by an adult. A quick look suggested that it might have been written by an adolescent, and verification from the Census showed that the diary had been written by a teenaged girl. Had I believed the cataloger, I never would have become acquainted with the useful and beautifully illustrated diary of young Bertha Behnke.
I was not entirely convinced, however, that I would find everything I wanted to know by looking at diaries. One of the more surprising sources for girls’ stories was a coroner’s report, filed in rural Wisconsin. My inspiration to go looking for farm children in coroner’s reports was Barbara Hanawalt’s work on medieval London. She found, embedded within the description of deaths of children, a rich source detailing the lives of London’s children. Those coroner’s reports were full of the texture of everyday life, in the form of parental testimony. I thought, perhaps, I could find similar discussions in American coroner’s reports. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. While I had gone to the coroner’s reports looking for farm accidents, what I found instead was a suspected case of infanticide, and a detailed report of a farm girl’s life gone tragically wrong. In short, in December 1915, Alma Christiansen, a schoolteacher in rural Dane County, Wisconsin, gave birth to an apparently premature baby during school hours, the event concealed from her students by her skirts. Concerned students, dismissed early by the distressed teacher, sent their mothers to investigate. The mothers found the infants’ body in the privy.
In the end, the coroner’s jury did not convict Alma Christiansen of any wrong doing. There was no proof that her baby had ever drawn a breath. What the trial left for the interested researcher was more than 70 pages of transcribed evidence, revealing a treasure trove of information about the hazards of premarital intercourse and the limits of discussions of sex in rural communities. A number of people thought the school teacher might be pregnant – but nobody really wanted to know, or to be responsible for “parenting” a teenaged girl in the absence of her own mother and father. What had been a research dead-end blossomed into a real avenue for entrance into discussions of sexuality in rural communities, a subject that is extremely difficult to uncover.
A state institution also provided stories in the same vein. The Wisconsin Public School acted as a clearing house for poor, neglected and orphaned children in need of homes. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the school placed children in farm homes throughout the state, providing a much needed source of agricultural labor. Several huge volumes of records provide information about children consigned to the care of the state. All of the stories are poignant. A number of the girls’ stories are particularly telling. Some bluntly tell the story of children’s exploitation as farm labor in strangers’ homes. Others, in coded language, provide evidence of the sexual abuse of girls. Many tell the stories of runaways, leaving the researcher to wonder why the girls ran, and to where.
I don’t have anything profound to tell you about these sources, except that they are there, and many of them are relatively untapped by historians. We may not be able to know everything we would like to know, but we can often find more than we ever dreamed was possible about the lives and concerns of rural girls.